What kind of RPG is Dark Shadows?
While the regular Crash Course gives you a quick overview of the setting and world, this article is meant to give you as a role-player or game master an idea of what Celenia: Dark Shadows is like to play both on its own but also in comparison to some other popular games. Dark Shadows uses the Celenia D10 RPG System.
A narrative game
Celenia: Dark Shadows is first and foremost a game designed with the narrative in mind, meaning the gamemaster herself is front and center. That doesn't mean that it's any less good for players, quite the opposite. The system and the setting is carefully crafted to allow a creative GM the narrative freedom to do whatever she wants and to adjust things on the fly, building the optimal tension and story for the players to enjoy.
For the players the system offers the freedom to quite frankly whatever they want without needing to learn the ins and outs of the system in detail. CD10 is a system designed to be handled by the GM almost exclusively which means the players can simply state their intention and what they want to do and the GM will make it happen, provided it's at all possible. The player doesn't need to know all the optional rules, modifiers and numbers in order to do things. They don't need to remember every ability name or the name of a particular rule they want to invoke. The GM should be able to accomodate the situation even if the GM herself doesn't remember the rules. That's how intuitive and flexible the system is once you know the basics.
Rules are written concisely and avoid complexity, meaning you spend more time gaming and less time rules-lawyering. Simple rules keep you in the game and that is something we firmly believe in.
Celenia is a game that through its setting and rules attempts to achieve a high grade of believability. I deliberately avoid the word "realism" as realism in games is seldom fun and we do play games to have an experience unlike reality to have fun. Celenia is not a realistic game but it is a game that attempts to be consistent and believable within its own framework and setting.
Character focus, lethal combat
It binds character background tightly to game mechanics through unique traits, giving character creation a real impact on how the game will play beyond just their skills. Personality and history impacts everything you do.
It offers a semi-realistic and gritty feel to combat, where one cannot stand alone against a horde of lesser enemies and expect to prevail. Combat is dangerous and as a player you should approach combat in Celenia much like you would in real life, given the same situation. Avoid it as much as possible, and if you must fight, do your very best to turn the odds in your favor.
For this reason Celenia does not have any hitpoints. It instead relies on a system of injury severity and debilitation tracking. Getting injured debilitates characters and a serious enough injury could put a person out of a fight completely without having them outright killed. To prevent this as a player you have several options available to you. Armor to absorb the potentially lethal force, shields to block attacks and skills to deftly maneuver out of or parry attacks. Defending yourself in Celenia is a very active part of combat, in contrast to other systems where, most of the time, your Armor Class is all that stands between you and damage. Should everything be against you, you have a small lifeline as the protagonist of the story: Hero Points.
Hero points is a limited resource that the protagonists of the story have in order to twist fate in their favor. It's a cushion against a very lethal combat system and the ability to put more agency in the hands of the players. Really, really need to nail this check? Spend a hero point to roll 2D10 for it! About to get offed by an unlucky attack? Spend a hero point to downgrade the injury!
No classes, archetypes or levels
In Celenia every character is unique and they are your own creation. There are no pre-set classes that teach you abilities, skills and offer stat bonuses. A character is simply a person living in the world of Dunia.
There are also no levels to increase as Celenia does not make use of vertical milestone based progression but instead use horizontal, skill-based progression. By participating in game sessions your character gains experience points that are used to learn new skills, increase already known skills and learn magical spells. It's entirely up to you to determine what your character should focus on and what skills to increase. You do not gain experience points for defeating monsters.
In addition, Celenia does not have any base attribute points like strength, stamina, dexterity or intelligence. It instead relies on a system of traits that help describe the character. Not having a trait simply means that your character is average in that trait. Not having Strong simply means that the character is of average strength. Not having Nobility means that your character isn't a noble, etc. Traits can describe a multitude of things beyond mere physical and mental characteristics, and traits can be used in any dice roll where it makes sense.
Not carefully crafted balance
Some games, particularly Dungeons and Dragons and its spinoffs, have a carefully crafted balance system in place to ensure that all classes are equally useful and that you can craft a challenging encounter with monsters that matches the abilities of the player characters. Celenia does not possess such a system. There are no challenge ratings to follow as gauging character power is very difficult in a system like Celenia. Instead the balancing of encounters is largely left in the hands of the GM and the GM is encouraged to craft encounters based on narrative rather than "we need an encounter in this session".
As you read through the rules for Celenia you will often encounter the word "narrative". Celenia is meant to be an immersive, collaborative storytelling experience where story and sense of adventure is the primary goal. This means that many of the rules are guidelines and as a GM you are often required to think on your feet and make a call that is best for the story, rather than having it spelled out clearly in a rule somewhere. This holds particularly true for skills and traits, where a player can make an argument to use a particular skill or trait for a check, even if that wasn't the original intent of the skill or trait. As long as it fits the narrative, the GM may allow it.
Fast, but elegant, rules
That is not to say that Celenia lacks rules. There are rules governing several aspects of the game, particularly combat and the use of magic. But seeing as Celenia lacks class archetypes with special abilities and actions, combat may play similarly for every character. A character's approach to combat becomes more a question of situation, personality and experience. Your tactical options are less about your class and more about your particular skills and equipment, and the opponent's equipment. It's the character who is in combat and the character's abilities that count, not the player's tactical knowledge of the system. Celenia is not a tactical combat simulator, it's a role playing game. You shouldn't need to know complex mechanics in order to be successful.
The rules offer a swift outcome to any combat, only requiring two or three dice rolls total to determine if an attack hit and how much damage it did. One from the attacker to determine if the attack was successful, one from the defender attempting to mitigate or even avoid damage, and if the defender is not successful enough, a physical save is required to determine injuries. Damage is called lethality in Celenia and is not a roll like in most RPGs. Lethality instead varies (slightly) with weapon type and a lot with the attack check. A more skillful attack will have a higher lethality.
Character's in Celenia may be adventurous heroes, but they are also people. People need friends, family and a home to go to. For this reason campaigns are divided into two main phases, where one is the Adventure Phase which functions just like any other role-playing game and the characters are out doing their thing. The other phase is the Winter Phase where characters are not out adventuring, but spend time with their family, friends and take care of any property they may own. The winters in the world of Dunia are harsh and no one in their right mind would challenge the winter just for some adventure.
The winter phase therefore functions as a small mini-game that passes by every year, touching on things like friends, yearly profits from estates, family, marriage and children.
The system encourages the players and the GM to make their own stuff up. If there's a skill your character would want but it's not in the rules, make it up! If there is a trait you feel is missing, make it up! With such a lightweight rule system, making your own stuff up becomes simple and fun. But, take the time to read through the skills and traits and see if your new skill or trait isn't already there, just with a different name, or if your skill would fit better as a specialisation under another skill.
Light on the player, demanding for the GM
Celenia is a simple system to learn and play for players. The rules are quite light for the player and after only a short familiarisation with how to make skill checks and saves, the player should be good to go. For the GM it's much more demanding as Celenia's rules can be relatively open to interpretation and often leave the outcome of a certain situation in the hands of the GM rather than spelling it out directly. In a game like Dungeons and Dragons, you know exactly how far you can move in a round, you know exactly how much movement it takes to stand up, you know exactly what you can do as every action is an action, bonus action, reaction etc. Celenia is more fluid that than, putting more demand on the GM to make abjudication on the fly from common sense and narrative.
That said, the rules are not complex in any way, but the GM must be creative and ready to make judgement calls depending on situation. It's a double edged sword in that it offers the GM great flexibility, but also demands more of her.